Italy’s eerie silence over slave markets in Libya
A CNN report showing purported slave markets in Libya resulted in a shock wave of international reactions. Hundreds of people in Stockholm, New York and Paris took to the streets calling for “an end to the slavery and concentration camps in Libya” and amid chants of “free our brothers.”
Italy, however, was suspiciously quiet. The country is preparing for parliamentary elections in the first half of 2018 and one of the biggest issues has been the arrival since 2013 of more than 700,000 refugees and migrants, the vast majority of whom stayed in Italy.
As a result, far-right, anti-immigrant parties, such as Lega Nord, have moved into the mainstream and CasaPound — an avowedly fascist fringe group — is gaining momentum. The populist Five Star Movement, which once spoke of welcoming migrants, shifted to the right on immigration. It is Italy’s centre-left Democratic Party, however, that may be most responsible for some of the migrant-related horrors in Libya.
“Italy cut deals with different [Libyan] actors over the last year or so and it worked [to reduce migration],” said Jalel Harchaoui, a doctoral candidate in geopolitics at Paris 8 University and a frequent commentator on Libyan affairs.
Many of the deals were reached by Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti. After Italian money flowed into Libya, migration dropped in August by 85%, the New York Times reported. The development was welcomed by many in Italy who say the country was unable to accept large numbers of new arrivals in such a short period of time.
“Rome tried to go through authorities in Tripoli but they don’t have authority so [Minniti] goes downstream to local actors to cut off the flow and I think that is the thinking on an immediate political level,” said Tim Eaton, a research fellow at the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House. “Of course that has impacts.”
There was a dark side to the Italian involvement, which included the deployment of Italian naval vessels off the Libyan coast to intercept migrants. A battle in the Libyan coastal town of Sabratha in October is believed to have been driven by fights between militias — backed by the country’s competing governments — over attempts to stop the migration flow.
“Italy disproportionately bears more of the burden from migration flows and has taken its own measures to keep migrants in Libya, the by-product of which is creating a humanitarian crisis,” said Amanda Kadlec, a policy analyst at the RAND Corporation. “Italy and the EU know what has been happening and the connections that exist between the groups involved in trading and the GNA [the UN-backed Government of National Accord in Libya].”
Italy has begun returning Africans to Libya, a policy decried by Alpha Conde, Guinea’s president and the head of the African Union, as “inhumane” considering the conditions the refugees were seeking to escape.
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said there are 700,000-1 million migrants in Libya, many of whom live in detention centres where sexual violence, torture and forced labour are common. More than 3,000 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean from Libya to Europe this year, IOM said.
The images broadcast by CNN purported to show Africans, mostly from West Africa, being sold for as low as $400. There are alleged cases of indentured servitude, in which Africans work to gain further passage to Europe.
“Migrants are effectively sold to do work for an unidentified period so they can then travel onward. In that sense, it’s clearly not justifiable because it is a violation of rights but (it may be) seen as working for onward passage,” Eaton said.
Allegations of human rights abuses in Libya have led to widespread calls for investigations.
“European governments have been aware of this for some time and the findings in the recent CNN report are not a shock to them,” Kadlec said. “Basically, smugglers didn’t just make a switch to slave trade because they’ve been doing it all along. It’s only now just gotten attention.”
French President Emmanuel Macron is threatening military action to address the issue and various UN agencies, including the UN Mission in Libya, are investigating the slave market reports. There has yet to be a significant statement from Rome, however.
“What’s interesting is that Italy has been silent since the CNN report,” Harchaoui said. “The only statement was about how they’d love to see the UN mediation effort led by Ghassan Salame (head of the UN Support Mission in Libya) continue.”
Harchaoui added that many actors have a “shared responsibility” for the crisis in Libya. “All states and actors behaved in a short-sighted fashion,” he said.
“There are no simple solutions to address this issue because Libya is a failed state and there are few tools to work with,” Kadlec said. “The one that does exist — the GNA — is relatively powerless to effect any change that doesn’t involve the militia groups that legitimise it and which may also be involved in the trade.”